(MINOR SPOILERS: Pulp Fiction, The Dead Girl)
“But how does Pulp Fiction fit into three-act structure?”
I get this question a lot when I’m discussing structure. Usually I dodge it. Because Pulp Fiction (story by Quentin Tarantino and Roger Avary, written by Quentin Tarantino) falls into a category of films known as anthology films, but it disguises that fact. And I don’t like to talk about anthology films because they are difficult to pull off and nearly impossible to sell. But today, I’m gonna break tradition and talk about them!
An anthology film is made up of several short films bound together by theme or location or gimmick. Each short film follows the normal rules of narrative (on which three-act structure theory is based). If you think of the standard feature as a novel, then anthology films are short story collections.
And they have the same pitfalls as short story collections – primarily that the stories usually are not equally good. And presenting them together invites comparison. Audiences tend to walk out of these movies saying, “I liked the second story but not the third story.” They also risk feeling lighter weight since they spend less time on each character and story. And they can lack forward momentum without a single, overarching dramatic question. It’s easier to put a short story collection down than a novel.
One anthology movie that I thought overcame these challenges was Nine Lives (written by Rodrigo Garcia). The movie consists of nine short films, each shot in a single long take. There are a few repeat characters, but basically each film stands alone. And they are all pretty high quality so it works.
Another is The Dead Girl (written by Karen Moncrieff) – a movie that contains five short films all centered around the discovery of a body. It works because the body connects all of the stories and because the final story tells us how the girl in question died. There is a bit of mystery built up in the first four stories that is answered in the fifth. This provides a sense of cohesion to the film.
Anthology films that I think work less well include Four Rooms (written by Allison Anders, Alexandre Rockwell, Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino) and Aria (written by a whole bunch of people).
And something you may notice about all of these films: All were low budget independent movies. So if you want to do something like this, you better be prepared to raise the money yourself.
Let’s go back to Pulp Fiction, obviously a successful example of the form. Pulp Fiction contains three stories told for the most part one after another. There are crossover characters, but each of the stories has a different main character and the plots only overlap in the most minor of ways.
But Pulp Fiction does two things to disguise the fact that these are three separate stories: First, it pulls the opening scene(s) out of each of the three stories and puts them at the beginning of the movie. So we start by cutting between the beginnings of all three stories. Then we see the rest of the stories play out in their entirety one after the other. But we’ve been given three catalysts – three dramatic questions have been introduced. We want to find out how each plays out. We know the movie’s not over until all three are answered. Because of this, people tend to remember Pulp Fiction being more intercut than it actually was.
The second thing Pulp Fiction does is pull out a bit of the Jules story to use as a framing story for the movie. You could argue Pumpkin and Honey Bunny are a fourth story, but I’d say they are simply minor characters in Jules’ story. Jules’ story is the final one told and it ends with the robbery in the café. So Tarantino pulled out the opening of that scene and put it at the beginning of the movie to create a frame.
The first trick leads us to a way anthology movies can be morphed into more traditionally structured movies and become moderately commercial: by intercutting the short stories and pulling one out to be the main story. You then structure the film around the main storyline and the others become loose subplots.
Want examples? Love Actually (written by Richard Curtis), Crash (story by Paul Haggis, screenplay by Paul Haggis & Robert Moresco), Babel (written by Guillermo Arriaga), and Valentine’s Day (story by Katherine Fugate and Abby Kohn & Marc Silverstein, screenplay by Katherine Fugate) all fit this model.
Obviously this approach is a little more marketable. But only a little. Of these, only Valentine’s Day is truly an American studio film. So if you want to do an anthology film, there are examples of success. But be prepared for an even steeper uphill battle than a normal movie.